Karl Stevenson is a sports psychologist, who has been researching the ins and outs of anticipation and decision making skill in cricket batting. He has worked with top-flight county teams as well as teaming up with the ECB.
In a recent interview, we got some tips from the lab that can be used on the pitch:
PV: How important is innate talent in becoming a successful cricketer?
KS: That’s a very interesting and often misinterpreted question, when people generally talk about talent; they assume that it is something genetic which automatically allows a person to be able to be more skilful than a person who possesses less talent.
The problem with this assumption is how do you measure raw talent? How do you know what raw talent looks like? Most coaches will say that you can ‘just tell’, or you can see it in their performances. But how do you know that their performance is not a result of their practice, or previous experiences in a similar sport?
I was considered to be ‘talented’ when I was younger, but that was a result of spending 4 hours a day playing backyard cricket in Zimbabwe – which naturally faded away when I came to England because I was not putting in the hours of specific practice which groomed my skill, did I suddenly become less talented? No - If it’s genetic then that isn’t possible. Did I put in less hours of practice? Yes.
So in relation to cricket I would say that innate talent is not important at all. You have to ask yourself two questions: What does a successful cricketer look like? Secondly what does a successful cricketer do? When you look at it like this you begin to see that there is no mould for a successful cricketer – there is no ideal height or physiological characteristics. However when you look at the second question, you can begin to pin down lots of skills that successful cricketers have – making the skill development and practice element more important than talent itself.
PV: How much has the mentality of cricket training changed in the last few years?
KS: The mentality has changed immensely. There have been a few stepping stones in the development of cricket training – starting with the idea of physical fitness and its importance, nutrition and its importance, and now the trend has turned to the specificity of practice which in my opinion has increased the professionalism of the game tenfold.
You only have to look as far as the fielding in the modern game, and how far that has come in the last 5 years to see the trend. These days if you mess up a sliding boundary stop you are considered a weak link; 10 years ago you were given a huge pat on the back for trying.
If I look to what’s responsible for this shift, I can only site the introduction of T20 as a format. It is such a high intensity format that for players to be selected, they need to have a range of skill sets in their lockers that they did not have before. A lot of people cited it as a batsman’s game during its introduction, especially with the innovation of the switch hit and othershots, but because of those shots the bowlers had to innovate equally, now we have bowlers who have 3 different slower balls, and are able to control their line and length at will. Some traditionalists may frown, but I can only see the positives.
PV: What practical tips can you give cricketers about making the most of practice time?
KS: Be objective about your practice, know exactly what you want to get out of it, and be creative when you train. Too many times in club or academy level do I see people being fed 100’s of balls out of a bowling machine with no target to that training. When you train like that you aren’t putting any strain on your already existing skill set – so how do you expect to put in a better performance over the weekend?
I would challenge club players to train like professionals. I know the intensity may not be the same, but if you go about emulating a professional, then you engage in a different type of practice. We call it deliberate practice, and it is targeted towards improving a specific skill sets.
If you were a batsman and you were timing the ball perfectly the weekend before but not finding the gaps, try something different, try a whole session of manipulating the ball through channelled cones – Make it a challenge, measure it, and try to better it the next set of balls you do. Not only does this improve your technical skills, but more importantly you are engaging in a far more demanding mental process – the type of mentality that leads to scoring hundreds, not a quick 30.
If I were a bowler, I would set my game plan. Treat every six-ball set as an over out in the middle. Set a field in your head, and set a target of how many runs you want to go for an over. This type of exercise will get you thinking more about where to bowl, and it will also improve your focus during a game – when it really counts.
PV: How much difference does technology make in the development of cricket skill?
KS: Quite simply, it is massive – and it shows no sign of slowing down. If you look at every professional unit, they will have a performance analyst. These analysts will be using technology to get as much information on their players and opponents as humanly possible. This information is fed back to the coaches, who can then specify their training to each individual... But more importantly, they can create strategy for the next match by identifying the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. We live in an information age, the more information you’ve got, the better prepared you can be.
This mentality does not stop when it comes to training, in the next couple of years I do not think it will be un-common to see a training analyst on the support team. With products like PitchVision being able to generate as much information as match analysis systems automatically, it is a perfect tool for coaches to give effective feedback to players, and if you are able to provide this feedback in a visual way, then it is worth so much more than words. This type of equipment aids specificity of practice and allows it to be objective. It allows coaches to state the how and why, instead of just speculate about it.
However, I would put a word of caution out. Not all technology is effective, some technologies take away from the skill itself. For example, there is no doubt that the Merlin bowling machine has allowed batsman to be able to play spin more effectively, however what it has not been able to teach is for batsmen to read spin effectively – and that’s where the wheels tend to fall off.